The Hills Run Red (1966) Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 9, 2021
Audio: English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio
Run Time: 89:13
Director: Carlo Lizzani
At the end of the Civil War, a Confederate soldier named Jerry Brewster (Thomas Hunter) is jailed for a heist engineered by his buddy, Ken Seagull (Nando Gazzolo), who escapes with the loot and builds himself a life of leisure. While suffering behind bars, he realizes he was double-crossed and vows revenge. Upon his release five years later, he teams up with a stranger to brawl and shoot his way through his old buddy’s henchmen and finally settle the score with his old partner-in-crime. (From Kino Lorber’s official synopsis)
1966 may have been the most transformative year in the short, but fierce history of spaghetti westerns. It marked the release of massively influential films, including Sergio Corbucci’s cynical Django, the two films credited with initiating the Zapata western subgenre – Damiano Damiani’s Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?) and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti) – and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo), the biggest, most enduringly popular Italian-made western of all time. But, with the uniquely subversive and political natures of these films having barely been established, filmmakers looking to cash in on the popularity of Leone’s early movies were (by and large) left trying to recreate the rock ‘n roll attitude of A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), while still reusing story models from older Hollywood westerns. In most cases “older” models doesn’t necessarily mean ancient or even irrelevant models. While plenty of the year’s more traditional Italian westerns are deservedly forgotten for their lack of innovation, others, like Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast), Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios (Italian: Texas, Addio), and Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, still opted for modern stylistic conventions and accounted for decades of genre revisionism from Hollywood veterans John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Fred Zinnemann.
One of 1966’s best traditional spaghettis was Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (Italian: Un Fiume di Dollari; aka: A River of Dollars). This narratively simple, but morally complex western was written by Piero Regnoli, who was also responsible for Navajo Joe (a far less morally complex, almost entirely action-driven movie). It was (as noted by author Howard Hughes during his thorough investigation of the film for Once Upon A Time in the Italian West [I.B. Tauris, 2006]) designed in part as an homage to the revisionist westerns of Anthony Mann, in particular The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955), though he also references Winchester ’73 (1950) by casting Dan Duryea. The Hills Run Red manages to be both a bloodthirsty thriller about a man tortured by his single-minded pursuit of vengeance and a rolicking action movie that isn’t afraid to poke a little fun of bygone genre conventions. Though never as over-the-top wacky as the later spoof westerns, The Hills Run Red is a rambunctious and particularly frenetic impression of Leone. In lesser hands, Jerry’s fevered drive for revenge would be played completely straight, but, likely due to the popularity of Leone’s tongue-in-cheek Man with No Name series, Lizzani and Regnoli eschew monotony by opting for unexpected jokes, over-the-top supporting characters (Henry Silva constantly steals the movie as the flamboyant, black-leather-clad bandit leader Garcia), and some incredibly cynical moments. The malleable tone is especially unexpected when compared to Regnoli’s three other 1966 screenplays – the thrice-mentioned Navajo Joe and Mino Guerrini’s melodramatic proto-giallo The Third Eye (Italian: Il terzo occhio), which was remade by Joe D’Amato (though much, much grosser) as Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive, 1979).
Lizzani was a proper and respected member of the Italian film community by the mid ‘60s. The former “militant film critic” (Howard Hughes’ words) turned documentary filmmaker had collaborated as writer with neorealist auteur Giuseppe De Santis on Bitter Rice (Italian: Riso amaro, 1949), before breaking into espionage thrillers, like Achtung! Banditi! (1951). He also helped establish what would become the successor to the spaghetti westerns, the poliziottesco, with Wake Up and Die (Italian: Svegliati e uccidi, 1967) and Bandits in Milan (Italian: Banditi a Milano; aka: The Violent Four, 1968). Overall, his movies tended to reflect his radical political views better than The Hills Run Red, which had the misfortune of being made before Damiani and Sollima had proven the viability of leftist Italian westerns. However, less than a year after The Hills Run Red, he made a second, more contemplatively intellectual western called Requiescant (aka: Kill and Pray and Let Them Rest, 1967).
Even separated from the rest of Lizzani’s career, The Hills Run Red and Requiescant are fascinating companion pieces, because they have so many themes in common, yet are so tonally disparate. In contrast to The Hills Run Red’s mean, but fun violence, Requiescant opens with a brutal, blood-soaked massacre that punctuates every other threat in the film. The Hills Run Red conditions its audience to treat violence as the next ridiculous antic in Jerry’s no good, very bad week (the most dramatic death, that of Jerry’s wife, occurs off-screen). Requiescant, on the other hand, conditions us to expect the bleakest possible outcome. When Requiescant (the character) is forced into drunken target practice, it’s easy to assume that he’s going to miss and kill the poor woman forced to hold the candelabra he is shooting at and, when he is tortured for information, it’s just as simple to assume he’s going to die. Lizzani also switches visual gears, from The Hills Run Red’s focus on nimble action and pacing to an evocative, nearly Gothic style that escalates the sense of brutality and grief.
Still, the two films converge thematically on some points. Jerry and Requiescant both return from long stints away from the outside world and both films run credits over montages of these separate lives. Jerry toils away in a hard-labor prison camp, dwelling on his release, while Requiescant enjoys nature, develops skills, and forgets his past. Both characters emerge ignorant of the trials ahead and simply react to the carnage and chaos that is thrust upon them. They’re both forced into antiheroic positions when they realize their retribution is tied to the larger community, which is likely the most direct reference to Lizzani’s politics in either film. The difference is that Jerry is not a pacifist – he’s on a mission to commit violence. Requiescant’s journey is intended to be a peaceful retrieval, but his almost supernatural vigilantism (which comes so naturally that he doesn’t even seem to notice it at times) destabilizes a cruel regime and leaves a swath of weapons in his wake – weapons that the subjugated Mexicans gather for future use. I also find it interesting to note that, minus nods to revenge westerns like The Hills Run Red, Requiescant is really a movie about the corruptive nature of the world, where a pious man becomes an unwitting tool of reckoning. For the record, Jerry and Requiescant are also both invited into the employ of the villain, but this seems less like a revisited motif than a case of two more movies that were heavily influenced by the plot structure of Fistful of Dollars (or, rather, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo , which it was based on).
I can’t find evidence of a North American VHS release, but MGM released an easily available, bare-bones DVD of The Hills Run Red in 2007 and the film played regularly in widescreen on cable television over the last decade. Unfortunately, an HD version of that DVD/cable transfer was only released on German Blu-ray, via Explosive Media. Knowing that Kino Lorber had access to MGM’s spaghetti western catalog for some time now, I’m a little surprised they waited so long to put out their own Blu-ray of The Hills Run Red, especially given how many of their spaghetti BDs were not previously released on MGM DVD. Regardless, it’s finally here and, assuming readers didn’t already buy the Explosive disc, it’s definitely worth upgrading from that standard definition disc.
The 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is arguably a bit weaker than Kino’s strongest spaghetti western releases, but it also didn’t get a full 4K overhaul, so softer edges, chunkier grain, and minor print damage artifacts are to be expected. The only issues that might pertain to mastering/compression are digital noise upticks among the richest reds and similar hues. According to specs, this was a Technicolor release (probably the cheapest possible variation thereof), so the boost in color quality is a big plus and the consistent hue quality, while not entirely natural, is in keeping with the format. The day-for-night shots (a common practice for the period/area) are certainly dark and feature some blotchy grain, but are still more discernible than what you see from the DVD, where the blue highlights are practically the same shade as the black shadows. The screen caps I’ve taken make it appear that some scenes suffer negligible edge enhancement and DNR, but I hadn’t noticed while watching the footage in motion. It’s possible this is a side effect of JPEG compression on the caps themselves.
While I’m unable to compare the Kino and Explosive transfers, I can say that Explosive has the advantage in terms of audio choices with a total of three, including the original Italian and English dubs. This Blu-ray only features the English track in uncompressed 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Here’s the part of the Italian genre movie review where I remind everyone that these movies were shot without sound and starred international casts who often spoke their own languages on set. All language tracks are dubbed and lip sync/tone/consistency will never completely match. In this case, I believe that Thomas Hunter and Henry Silva are dubbing their own performances in English, making the English dub preferable to an Italian one in my eyes (technically, Silva would be capable of dubbing himself in Italian, too, but that would’ve cost producers more money). Dialogue and effects exhibit some fuzzy and echoey qualities from scene to scene, but there is little buzz or major dips in volume. Arguably, what’s most important is the sound quality where it pertains to Ennio Morricone’s original score, because if you have a Morricone spaghetti score, you want it to sound as fantastic as possible. This isn’t one of the maestro’s most memorable scores, only because it sounds too much like the superior and supremely weird Navajo Joe soundtrack. Still, the title theme is somewhat unique to Morricone’s rock ‘n roll take on genre, given that it sounds a bit like the stuff Elmer Bernstein did for John Sturges movies. When needed, it definitely gets the blood pumping.
Commentary with filmmaker Alex Cox – The director of Repo Man (1984) and Walker (1987), author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009), and contributor to many commentaries and interviews on Italian westerns does his typical thing here, offering up plenty of factoids, cast & crew information, and criticisms between relatively short silent stretches. The original edition of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western didn’t have a dedicated section to The Hill Run Red, because Cox didn’t particularly like it. He addresses this right away and endeavors to defend the film against naysayers such as his former self.
Trailers for other Kino Lorber spaghetti western releases.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.